Jihad Fantasy: Could This Be My Child?

"Between the soccer practices and the hours at her accounting job and the potlucks with the neighbors, Christianne Boudreau spent every spare minute watching Islamic State videos, her nose pressed up against the computer screen[.] ... Through the screens and behind the balaclavas, she was looking for her son's eyes."

If only Christianne had been aware of the signs, processes, and ideology of Islamic indoctrination before her son, Damien, disappeared.  If only more parents were knowledgeable about predatory recruiters who seek to promote extremist jihadi values to curious and naïve teens.  Then perhaps the parents of three girls ages 15, 16, and 17 from an upper-class neighborhood in Denver would have recognized the signs before the girls stole away from high school to join ISIS.  Newlyweds from Mississippi who thought it would be cool to celebrate their honeymoon by serving ISIS would not be serving time instead.  An American mother of three, in Chicago, who woke one morning to find a letter, instead of her children, might have stopped them before they left to join ISIS.

Salafi-jihadism is described by convicted terrorist Anjem Choudary: "Next time when your child is at school and the teacher says, what do you want to be when you grow up?  What is your ambition?  They should say, to dominate the whole world by Islam."  Like gangs and cults, radical Islamism justifies acts of violence by using subversive messaging and brainwashing techniques.  Studies show that radicalization could happen to anyone, not just the mentally ill, petty criminals or society drop-outs, but average Americans. How can American parents tell if their child is under the influence of a cunning jihadi recruiter?

The signs of jihadi indoctrination include suddenly quitting smoking, drinking, consuming pork; spending a lot of time in chat rooms; a sudden interest in learning about Islam or Arabic; a change in friendships; spending a large amount of time at a mosque or Islamic cultural center; judging others' behavior as not sanctioned by Allah; a change from Western clothing styles; and no longer listening to music or watching television.  Parents should heed these red flags and speak frankly to their children about all types of influences and outside dangers.

As indoctrination progresses, it penetrates the psyche so deeply that once it has taken root, it is difficult to break away.  Alex, a Sunday school teacher, met her "friend" Feisal, her radical handler, online.  Alex showed signs of indoctrination, but by the time her grandmother discovered Feisal, it was too late: Alex was lost to radical Islamism.  Even then, in the back of her mind, she wondered, how can these nice people be the same ones chopping off people's heads?

No One-Size-Fits-All Radicalization Process

Parental intuition is the best way to spot indoctrination.  Every teen is different – there are introverts and extroverts, strict rule followers, and those who think rules are a casual suggestion.  There are philosophers and eye-rollers, ambitious overachievers and fun-loving couch potatoes.  Children are born with a basic nature, a personal footprint.  As they mature, internal triggers are developed, and the trained recruiter manipulates those triggers creating an "us" versus "them" dichotomy.  By pitting teens against their family and their country, the recruiter gains control.  Further, demanding secrecy from the neophyte, recruiters create mystique and excitement while ensuring even more control.  Like Alex, soon the recruit is lonely, isolated, and dependent on the handler.

At this point, recruits may experience emotional upheavals as their lives take drastic changes creating fertile ground for indoctrination.  Americans who radicalize hail from extremely diverse backgrounds and are motivated by vastly different factors.  But what they do have in common is that everyone has a fantasy – especially during the invincible teenage years.  Recruiters design and frame a personal profile to fit every jihadi fantasy by detecting individual vulnerabilities.

Through manipulation, isolation, brainwashing, the drive for purpose, and the security of routines, teens find comfort with their jihadi handlers.  How does a recruiter access and draw-in prospective recruits?  A personal crisis drawn out by a jihadi fantasy may provide fertile soil for "internal" radicalization.  An "internal" and an "external" element must be present for the radicalization process to occur.

Internal Elements

From the jock with excessive testosterone looking for violence to feed displaced anger to the "save the world" idealist who seeks to help suffering refugees from Syria, everyone has dreams. Perhaps one of the following fantasies describes someone you know.

From the Adventure-Seeker Fantasy thriving on adrenaline by his perceived invincibility who seeks ISIS as a cool summer camp to the Jihadi Bride-Homemaker Fantasy who dreams of giving birth to ISIS babies while hiding behind hijabs, these fantasies capture an emptiness waiting to be filled.  Caught between the desire for a conventional lifestyle but wanting to live it in an unconventional way; many of the recruits are escaping unfulfilled dreams.  The jihadi recruiter manipulates the recruits' internal vulnerability by creating an environment that fulfills their emptiness that ironically feels safe.

The Jihadi Grievance Maker Fantasy despises American values, capitalism, and freedom.  They disrupt lectures on campus violently protesting at those exercising their First Amendment rights with whom they disagree.

The Jihadi Martyr-Redeemer Fantasy dreams of giving their life as a "shahid," or martyr, believing his that death will be a family celebration.  Martyrs' families receive monthly salaries for their sacrifice.  In 2016, suicide bombings reached an all-time high and ISIS claimed responsibility for 70% of the attacks.

The Jihadi True Believer Fantasy advocates believe in the Salafi (orthodox) seventh-century interpretation of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, and insist that all Muslims follow it to the letter.

External Elements

The external element of the indoctrination process requires a facilitator to encourage the recruit to reject the status quo in favor of jihad.  The facilitator could be a persuasive jihadi recruiter, a charismatic imam, a "friend" in a chat room or a radical college professor that creates a support system for ensuring radicalization.  Becoming a part of the jihadi network creates a dose of groupthink where following group rules and behaviors creates a feeling of unity and belonging.  By combining the internal vulnerability (fantasies) and the external (facilitator) together a recipe for a jihadi recruit is created.

Radicalization is prevalent in social media chat rooms, in radical mosques, and on college campuses, where radical Muslim Student Associations, intolerant literature, and jihadi professors reside.  Social groups such as fraternities, sports clubs, prisons, gangs, social cliques create connections for peer approval.  At one time, it took years to radicalize recruits.  Now it may take less than a month (1).

Those who join the caliphate will likely witness brutal beheadings and slavery, eventually wishing they had never left home.  Sadly, like 95% of ISIS recruits, Hoda Muthana from the University of Alabama cannot return home.  What can parents do?

Find some resolve to become educated about radical Islamism.  Develop an awareness of the fantasies and tactics used to recruit.  Teach your children about the warning signs, locations, and tactics jihadis use, and create strategies to make your neighborhood a safer place.  It is every American's responsibility to protect our families and communities.  As Edmund Burke famously stated, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

(1) Matthew Levitt, Washington Institute of the Near East, speaking at the Counter-Terrorism World Conference in Hertzliya, Israel at the IDC Institute, July 15, 2016.

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